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Feds Tell Importer of Black Death Vodka That Marketing Illegal

April 6, 1992 GMT

EL MONTE, Calif. (AP) _ Importers of Black Death vodka, featuring a smiling skull label and coffin packaging, want federal regulators to reconsider plans to outlaw Black Death because of misleading advertising.

The U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms notified Black Death USA on April 1 that it was rescinding approval of the label in 10 days, bureau spokesman Tom Hill said Monday from his Washington, D.C., office.

ATF officials and Thomas Lines, chief executive officer for El Monte-based Black Death USA, planned to meet Tuesday in Washington to discuss the label controversy. Future imports would be banned under the BATF decision.

″We don’t feel there is a legal basis for this ruling. We feel we have a very strong legal position,″ Lines said Monday, adding he didn’t anticipate ″a hostile meeting″ in Washington.

″We have said that Black Death, according to the dictionary, involves people with bubonic plague,″ said Hill. ″They are sort of mocking it. It gives a false impression to the consumer that it is OK to consume it.″

BATF approved the Black Death label in July 1989, but four months later Congress approved health warnings on alcoholic beverages.

″Should they be mocking the health warning?″ Hill said. ″You could say it is just done in jest, but when you look at ingesting alcohol, people shouldn’t be making fun of it.″

But Lines said Black Death was ″one of the first companies to put the warning on the label before the legislation was passed.″

Additionally, Surgeon General Antonia Novello complained last month that Black Death was blatantly appealing to underage drinkers by using rock star Slash of Guns N’ Roses as spokesman in ads in Rolling Stone magazine.

The Washington-based Advocacy Group, which studies how marketing influences teen-age drinking, said it was troubled by Black Death spokesman Slash.

″They’re clearly targeting an underage crowd,″ spokesman George Hacker said. ″By associating a product with rock ‘n’ roll, it’s connected to youth rebellion and all the rest.″

Black Death USA said it targets young people, but not underage drinkers.

″We did a lot of market research with this product and we would not have brought it to the market if that marketing showed it was targeting underage people,″ said Lines.

Beet-based Black Death vodka is distilled in Belgium and imported into the United States by Black Death USA’s Cabo Distributing.

Black Death has had problems before. In August 1990, British soccer authorities struck down a sponsorship plan that would have had players from fourth-division Scarbourough, England, wearing Black Death vodka ads.